WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2010 — The sinking in March of the South Korean ship Cheonan underscores the importance of U.S. troops to security in Northeast Asia and the defense of South Korea, top defense officials told Congress today.
“North Korea’s torpedo attack is a somber reminder of the active threat North Korea poses to regional stability,” Wallace “Chip” Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said. “In such a high-threat environment, the [U.S.-South Korean] alliance mission to deter and defend takes on added significance and is our primary focus.”
Speaking to the Senate Armed Service Committee, Gregson expressed his concern with North Korea’s attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, and its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korean arms sales and continued defiance of United Nations security resolutions, he added, pose a threat not only to South Korea, but also to the entire region.
“[North Korea’s] proven track record of marrying capabilities with deadly intent has resulted in unnecessary crisis, tension escalation, and as the attack on the Cheonan demonstrated, tragic loss of life,” he said.
Gregson, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, said deterring North Korea requires a complex military solution. North Korea’s conventional threat and pursuit of ballistic and nuclear capabilities causes concern in Washington and in the South Korean capital of Seoul, he said.
North Korea’s military is adapted to the U.S.-South Korea conventional military partnership, Gregson said, and has developed tactics and weapons systems that may allow North Korea to avoid confronting its targets.
“In the context of [North Korean] efforts to develop a nuclear program, its ballistic missile efforts become an even greater concern,” he said. “Nuclear and ballistic missiles, if developed and fielded, would pose a threat to regional peace and stability that would be orders of magnitude greater than the already heightened threat.
“North Korea may become embolden to pursue even more provocative activities than we have witnessed in recent years,” he continued, “if it makes significant strides in its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology.”
Gregson said he is confident the U.S.-South Korean partnership will improve peace in the region, but to sustain international peace and security, the U.S. military must remain postured in South Korea.
“To preserve our security commitment to the Republic of Korea, the United States must maintain a forward military posture,” he said. “[Having] 28,500 troops stationed somewhere in the United States does not have the same deterrent effect as the same number stationed in Korea. It is our forward presence that most effectively communicates our resolve to defend our allies and preserve our vital interests in Asia. Successful deterrence relies on credibility as much, if not more than, capability.”
The Strategic Alliance 2015 agreement ensures nearly 30,000 American troops will remain in South Korea until 2015. According to the 1953 armistice that established a cease-fire to the Korean War, the U.S. military would maintain operational control of combined defenses until 2012. But South Korean President Lee Myung-bak asked to extend the transition to 2015 as a result of the Cheonan attack. President Barack Obama agreed.
Army Gen. Walter L. “Skip” Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, testified with Gregson. He said he believes the Cheonan attack will not be the last by North Korea, and that the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range capabilities suggest North Korea will continue to threaten the region.
“The conventional threat continues, but we now face an enemy capable of using a number of asymmetrical means to threaten its neighbors, while also violating past agreements, international norms and the United Nations Security Council resolution,” he said.
The new alliance agreement, which Sharp introduced last week, means more joint training and exercises. The two nations have launched a series of air, land and sea exercises to better prepare South Korea defenses, he said.
Strategic Alliance 2015 synchronizes South Korean and U.S. transformation initiatives as the alliance prepares for the transfer of operational control for combined defense, Sharp said, and it demonstrates the U.S. commitment to South Korea.
“Strategic Alliance 2015 will enable the Republic of Korea and U.S. forces to successfully confront future security challenges and set the conditions for lasting peace in the Korean peninsula and the region,” the general said. “The Republic of Korea and the United States are more strongly united than ever before to deter North Korean provocations and aggression, and to defeat them if necessary.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)